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      12-15-2008, 05:16 AM   #1
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Comparison Test: 370Z vs 135i

Dare To Compare

By Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor Email | Blog
Date posted: 12-14-2008

What comes after Z?, we wondered when Nissan let the stage go black in 1996 and officially bid farewell to the Z-car at an event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Sales of the twin-turbo 300ZX had been declining as fast as applications for library cards, so Nissan simply stopped selling the car in the U.S. It made us wonder where the Z fit in Nissan's future.

The answer came in 2002, when the Nissan 350Z appeared, a serious sports car that seemed to measure itself against the Corvette in both speed and style. It brought people back to Nissan, but lots of the young enthusiasts didn't know what an icon the Z had been for the company since its inception in 1970.

With the 2009 Nissan 370Z, all that changes. As a Z should be, the 370Z is a statement of purpose, not just another car on the showroom floor. With this second-generation version of the revitalized Z, the car has moved on from affordable performance to something that brings new descriptions into play not only like quick, fast, strong and powerful, but also gorgeous, luxurious, nimble, graceful, delicate and smooth.

This is a car so good that it makes you wonder what kind of car it is: a sports car, a sport coupe or a muscle-bound pony car? And that's where the 2008 BMW 135i comes in, a pocket-size BMW M3 with an affordable price tag to match.

The Not-So-Secret Weapon
The 2009 Nissan 370Z is priced like a pony car, with an MSRP for the base model that will start a whisker below $30,000 (final pricing has yet to be announced before the car's official on-sale date in January). Our Z arrived with the Sport package ($3,500 est.) and a still-wet paint job in nail-polish red ($500 estimated) for an estimated total of $34,625.

During the Z-car's development, Nissan targeted the Porsche Cayman as the new Z-car's dynamic goal. But the 2009 Cayman makes only 265 horsepower from its new 2.9-liter flat-6 engine, and you'll have to up the ante by almost $10,000 for a 2009 Cayman S with 320 hp to come within reach of the Z's 332-hp 3.7-liter V6. Suddenly, you're looking at a price tag far above $50,000, and the Porsche Cayman at any price seems one-dimensional compared to the Z-car.

We found the answer in our long-term test fleet and our very own 2008 BMW 135i, with its already legendary twin-turbo 300-hp inline-6 and a $35,725 base price. (Our particular test car also includes $2,045 in options, but those are mostly dress upgrades.)

Unlike the Z-car, the BMW has a backseat, but it also has the same sense of being fully equipped with both performance and convenience equipment as the Z-car. In this it's like a baby M3, combining sports car performance with sport coupe practicality. And this is what the 2009 Nissan 370Z is after, we think.

Who Would Have Believed?
All our scurrilous suspicions about the ineffectiveness of the 370Z's negligible weight reduction over the 350Z were put to rest after the Z-car's first quarter-mile pass. The radio crackled, "High 13s! I think I can bring it down with a better bog-free launch. Beep." Sure enough, raising the rpm to about five grand before dumping the clutch let the monster 275mm-width Potenzas sing that telling tone: the one that says, "You nailed it, now just don't botch a shift, cowboy." The result is 5.1 seconds to 60 mph (4.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 104.6 mph. Yeow.

We went positively apoplectic when the first 2007 BMW 335i Coupe ran down a drag strip with numbers like those. Well guess what? Our daily-driver 135i nearly duplicated the Z-car's run with its own 5.1-second dash to 60 mph (4.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout) and a quarter-mile of 13.4 seconds at 103.5 mph.

Uh-oh. That's a dead heat, and this isn't going to be an easy one to call when it comes time to put the test scores on paper, is it?

Grip 'n Grin
While the 370Z is the fastest production Z-car ever, the better news is that the heavy shifting action and equally ham-fisted steering response have been banished. What's more, adding the Sport package's upsized brakes, viscous limited-slip differential, lightweight wheels and wide tires give the Z-car some incredible stick, too.

Never mind the Cayman. Remember when a 2007 Porsche 911 Turbo with its $8,800 optional carbon-ceramic brakes brought that ultraexpensive car to a halt from 60 mph in just 103 feet? This Nissan 370Z with its own brake upgrades stopped in 101 feet on the first and fifth attempts, proving highly resistant to fade. These are solid, powerful brakes that give you confidence, to be sure.

Of course, we discovered that repeated hammering on the Nissan's brake pedal deformed something in the linkage in a way that makes at least one sensor think the brake pedal is constantly on. When this happens, the throttle will default to only 20 percent input (a similar strategy to prevent unintended acceleration is featured by cars from the German manufacturers, among others). The quick fix is to simply lift the brake pedal with the toe of your left foot, and then later we taped a couple pennies between the sensor and the perch it was looking for. Apparently Nissan discovered this issue shortly after this preproduction car was built and a permanent fix has been made.

The BMW 135i wasn't napping, though. On its second and fifth braking attempts, the Bavarian repeated silent and controlled stops from 60 mph of 108 feet. The Z-car has an advantage here in tire choice, but we also found that the BMW brake system makes it a little easier to jump on the pedal and still get response that is more linear and easier to modulate.

When the slalom runs returned effectively identical speeds of 69.8 mph for the Nissan and 69.7 mph for the BMW, we couldn't help but laugh. (C'mon, these two cars are identical on paper, but they feel so different.) The tie-breaking test came on the skid pad, where the relatively small tires on the BMW manage to produce a highly respectable orbit of 0.90g that is summarily crushed by the Z's supercarlike 0.97g grip. (Where'd that come from? This thing's got brutal levels of mechanical grip.)

Charting the Differences
As we switched between these two cars over the course of several days, it was a remarkable thing to travel through space at the same rate but record two entirely different experiences. On the same roads and at the same speed, the BMW clearly values ride compliance and engine smoothness and quietness in general, while the Nissan provides unrelenting contact with the road, razor-sharp control and an unmistakable V6 soundtrack. Mark that down.

Honestly, though, the Z's exhaust sounds far better from outside than it does from within. This version of the VQ-Series V6 drones a bit, and it gets pretty tiresome with time. Speaking of tiresome, the same goes for the roar generated by the Z's huge Bridgestones, emphasis on stones. We suspect the din would be more subdued with the standard tires, but then you wouldn't have all that grip, now, would you? Mark that.

More differences were discovered when we started logging standard and optional equipment. Intelligent ignition key? Standard on the Z, optional on the 135i. The same holds true for heated seats, but then you get four in the 135i (although they're wrapped in sweat-producing leatherette unless you opt for leather). The seats in the 370Z might be cloth (you need to order the Touring model for leather) and they'll make you feel like you need to visit the gym more often, but they're also highly supportive and keep the driver in place when exploring the car's limits.

And when you look hard at an overall list of features, the Z-car looks pretty strong. (Check out our Features Comparison for a more thorough discussion.)

Say It With Style
You know Nissan "got it" from the moment you first glance at the 2009 370Z. Believe us when we say that the styling works far better in person than it does in photos, even if our award-winning photographer Scott Jacobs captures it. Those powerful wheel arches, especially on the rear of the car, give the 370Z genuine sports-car cred with one simple yet profound gesture.

The sharp character lines running down the hood are carried into a grille that has far more personality than the previous car's rectangular duct, while the 4 inches sliced out of the wheelbase enhance a kind of cohesive mechanical effect. We love it, and we'd love to see an all-black 370Z with blacked-out windows.

We can appreciate that there are some of you who believe the BMW 1 Series bears some resemblance to the car that's widely recognized as the original sport sedan, the BMW 2002, but there are also those among us who still think it looks like a potbellied pig. Sorry, but it's no breathtaking Z8, or even nearly as lust-worthy as a 335i coupe's sweeping lines. It's not going to age well, either.

Interesting? Yes. Corporate? Undoubtedly. Gorgeous? Now don't get carried away.

Are We Ever Going To Choose a Winner?
When the 2008 BMW 135i came to us, we found it to be one of the purest expressions of the BMW character since the 1971 BMW 2002 tii. Now that the novelty has worn off a bit and we've driven one for close to 15,000 miles, we still think it's a brilliant car. With a long-legged engine that's as happy at 2,000 rpm as it is at 7,000 rpm, this BMW is destined to continue to win comparison tests and conquest buyers for years to come.

The 2009 Nissan 370Z achieves the same sort of thing on the Nissan side. It's so improved in every way over the 350Z that it comes off like a completely different car. Think of the 350Z as a really long prototyping program or maybe an elaborate focus group process. It might have taken six years to work out the kinks, but man, was it worth it. It is both sports car and sport coupe, just as in Mr. K's original concept for the 1970 Datsun 240Z and very much as the BMW M3 has evolved. And it wins this comparison test.

We'll even go so far as to say that the 2009 Nissan 370Z now raises the standard for the sport coupe segment to a new level of affordable excellence. Its accessible performance alone is worthy of status as a benchmark. Its looks alone will bring people to a Nissan showroom. And the combination of the Z-car's reasonable price and fuel -efficiency (22 mpg EPA combined) will certainly get your attention.

The 2009 Nissan 370Z has the whole benchmark package wrapped up with a bow: price, exterior design, interior packaging, performance, features and that X-factor that makes you just want to go out and drive one, and drive it hard. Thinking of the Z-car as a sports car is one thing, but we can honestly say that there's not another sport coupe that can touch the new Z. Dare to compare.

The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
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